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13 Misconceptions About Dissociative Identity Disorder

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There are a lot of misconceptions about dissociative identity disorder (DID). Here are some common ones I’ve heard:

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1. “DID is so rare, you can’t possibly have it!”

It isn’t actually as rare as you may think. The ISSTD (International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation) accept that up to one to three percent of the general population have DID, this is roughly the same amount of people who possess the “ginger” gene!

2. “If you really had DID, you wouldn’t know about your alters!”

It’s fairly common for those with DID to know about their alters. Many report hearing others talking inside and can be aware of other “selves,” even in childhood. Many individuals will not remember what they have been doing for periods of time and can behave completely out of character. This is an extremely confusing experience, especially prior to receiving psychiatric support. Internal communication between alters is often worked on and improved through therapy.

3. “Do you have an evil alter? I’ve heard people with DID are dangerous!”

This is a common misconception which isn’t helped by media portrayals of “split personalities” like the characters Jekyll and Hyde and sensationalized films like the 2017 movie, “Split.” Those with DID (like most mental illnesses) are more likely to be a danger to themselves, not others. There are no evil alters. There can be destructive alters, but they need the same amount of compassion as any other member of the system!

4. “You can develop DID as an adult!”

The only possible time that DID can form is in early childhood, generally accepted to be before age of six and nine at the latest, because normal personality development that occurs at this age is interrupted by trauma. Traumatic experiences that occur later than this age can lead to other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not DID.

5. “DID is the same as schizophrenia!”

They are two very different disorders. According to the ISSTD, DID is a dissociative disorder developed through chronic childhood trauma and characterized by “the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of the individual’s behavior, accompanied by an inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.”

Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is a psychotic disorder potentially caused by a number of factors including genetics, biology of the brain and stress. It is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, disorganized speech, etc. which causes significant social or occupational dysfunction.

6. “DID isn’t real! Stop pretending!” 

DID is very real and there is a lot of evidence supporting it. Despite this, it remains a controversial diagnosis to some professionals. Despite having a diagnosis of DID, a psychiatrist on an acute psychiatric ward once told me it doesn’t exist, that I was lying and it is “the stuff of Hollywood movies!” Stigma surrounding this disorder can unfortunately sometimes include professionals, despite DID being a recognized psychological condition in diagnostic manuals worldwide.

7. “You can’t have DID, I would have noticed!”

Often switches between alters are not obvious to those who don’t know what to look for. If you know someone with DID well, you may notice slight differences in body language, vocal differences, differences in handwriting, differences in vocabulary etc. that would otherwise go unnoticed. When DID develops in childhood, it is to protect the child from trauma and allow them to have as normal a childhood as possible. It is meant to go unnoticed.

8. “Everyone has multiple personalities!”

Everyone has different aspects of their personality and different sides to themselves that are needed in different circumstances and at different times. Alter personalities are not just representations of different emotions but dissociated parts of the personality that have their own identities including their own age, gender, interests, dislikes, opinions and ways of interacting with the world. Alters only exist in DID and OSDD (otherwise specified dissociative disorder) and are not developed consciously. As mentioned, they develop as a result of repetitive and severe trauma in early childhood.

9. “You can’t have more than five alters, that’s just not possible!”

The size of a DID system depends completely on the individual and their needs. Once DID develops as a child’s coping mechanism, it may continue and further splits may occur throughout life in times of trauma or extreme stress. The diagnostic criteria only specifies that there must be “two or more” alters and there are cases of hundreds of alters within one body (polyfragmented DID, which is often a result of more organized and extreme abuse).

10. “Switching always causes complete amnesia!”

While there is often “lost time” experienced by those living with DID (also called dissociative amnesia), co-consciousness can also occur. This is when more than one member of the system is experiencing the external world at the same time and they are aware of each other’s presence.

11. “You can’t have non human alters!”

Non human alters are fairly common and recognized by professionals. There are several reasons why non human alters may develop, for example, if a child is treated like an animal or if they identify with animals more than humans as “friends” or protectors.

12. “Integration is the only way to treat DID!”

Despite this being the “aim” of therapy in the past, a lot of professionals now recognize this isn’t the only treatment option for those with DID. Improving cooperation and harmonious coexisting of alters is often the main therapeutic goal.

13. “People with DID can’t function or lead a normal life!”

The prognosis of DID is actually quite positive, with many people successfully pursuing careers and having families. Like with other mental illnesses, recovery takes time, may include a number of treatment options and is an ongoing process.

Thinkstock photo via bruniewska.

Originally published: March 31, 2017
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